This woman, Teva, she was more innocent than I ever was. But that doesn’t change the fact that she is closer to who I was before than the monster I’ve become.
I look down at my bloody left limb. I wonder if my Lady will flinch, seeing this. I climb a small pile of rubble and jump down, out of the breach. I land on my feet, disturbing my wounds.
Once past the castle walls, I keep making my way north on the plains. I can see the tide of Rykz that Teva talked about. They’re almost all scouts but there are a sparse amount of those large creatures with four bladed arms.
Maybe a couple hundred at the most, they tower over the rest of the Rykz around them. I throw a glance over my shoulder, finding a large number of ladders laid on the wall behind me to either side of the breach.
It takes me an hour to reach the edge of the Rykz’ army at slow walking pace. A patrol of scouts veers away from their patrol and starts escorting me towards the north-east. I follow along at my pace, too injured to go any faster.
They guide me into the camp, across a small trench of two meters wide and fifty centimeters deep. There are sharp wooden pikes planted at the bottom of it, those were invisible until I got close enough to look inside.
A few minutes of walking uphill later, I spot a cart guarded by four of those new Rykz and a huge amount of scouts spread around the area. Celyz is here, not sure how I know, but I do.
So much for my attempt to force her to remain in the background, safe. I walk up to the cart, leaving my escort of scouts behind.
“Celyz.” I speak up. “What’s going on?”
“Jessica!” She replies with an enthusiastic resounding voice. “For now, we’re standing off. Their army is still assembling so we’re digging in.”
I hop onto the cart and sit next to her, putting my wounds to rest and relaxing a little. Her knee is still wrapped in a bandage but I saw her move it slightly to make space for me.
“That doesn’t sound like a good strategy. You should call Fenyz back and attack Meria’s army tonight, break them quickly and be done with this.” I argue.
“Fenyz is of the opinion that we should keep doing what has worked against the Empire before. Exchange our soldiers to damage or take control of the infrastructure rather than clash with armies that are constantly replenished in troops.” Celyz replies. “The Empire seems to have an endless amount of soldiers to hold its borders.”
“That may have been true during your previous conflicts, but it isn’t here. Beating this army back will secure your position over the entire south of the Izla, you know this.” I say, almost challenging her to contradict me.
“I do. But Fenyz is also correct to focus on seizing the castle. We are not in a rush right now, why should abandon a good defensive position?” Celyz asks.
“You need time, correct?” I return her question with one of my own.
“A few days at the most.” She answers.
“And you’ll have a horde of over a hundred thousand disorganized Rykz who have almost no training.” I incline my head. “If we break this army, you’ll have all the time you need to secure the Izla, isolate Meria, and train your soldiers for the assault.”
“What’s your angle, Jessica?” Celyz asks directly.
“They’re determined to fight here. At this point, the best outcome for me would be a surprise attack that crushes them quickly enough that casualties are low on both sides. Castle Lance will fall, they don’t have enough soldiers to stop you from taking it now that you’re inside its walls. I want to focus on ending the battle here without dragging this on.” I explain.
“I can order Fenyz to dig in and bring most of her troops back with her.” Celyz nods. “Attacking at night would be more advantageous to us.” She pauses. “I have to ask, Jessica, where are the others?”
“Mercenaries ran away before Teva was done setting up her construct, bandits set the town on fire to use the confusion to rob people. Ulf is dead, Teva is going to return to her village.” I reply in a cold tone of voice. “I might not be able to do much in Meria, alone.”
“You succeeded anyway. We will consider what’s to be done once we’re past this.” Celyz waves her tendrils in a shrugging manner.
“I’m not sure Fenyz needed the help, parts of the walls were already crawling with Rykz before we breached them.” I glance at the four armed Rykz. “What do you call them?”
“We use a mixture of different pheromones.” Celyz inclines her head to the side, thoughtfully. “Humans call them harvesters if I’m not mistaken.”
“Will you follow my suggestion?” I ask.
“I will.” She nods. “We gain from forcing a battle now, even if it is a draw or a loss for us. I warn you, we will try to damage this army as much as possible to make Meria’s walls easier to take, later.”
“I know.” I pause. It’s up to me to find the quickest way to break them.
The human army is camping about a kilometer away. The central part of it is well-organized, rows of tents and horses tied to stakes. There are banners floating in the wind, too far for me to distinguish the crests.
The circumference of the camp is disorganized, the people there resemble a mob from afar, their clothes are dull colored and no banners fly over their heads.
“Do you need medical attention?” Celyz asks.
“No, just food and rest.” I shake my head. “That reminds me, can you refill my flow reserves?”
Celyz nods and takes out a black glowing ball of flow. I absorb it into my reserves, filling them past my limit. I quickly assemble two healing constructs with the extra energy, anchoring them over my shoulder and the cut on my right side.
The Rykz Princess waves tendrils towards two different groups of Rykz. First is a squad of scouts nearby who depart immediately, heading south towards Castle Lance.
The other is a group of workers who make their way to a cart and bring back two large steaming pots of food that they lay at our feet. I snap my left hand’s fingers, unwilling to get off the cart and disturb my injuries.
One of the workers picks my pot up to deposit it at my side between me and Celyz. I take hold of the large serving spoon inside and start eating.
“Huh. That worked?” I mutter between two gulps, surprised.
“Half the sound, half your arm diffusing a predatory smell, complaining about its hunger in a very primitive way.” Celyz chuckles and drips a foot inside her pot of liquid food. “Do you have an opinion to share about tonight’s attack?”
“Those harvesters, how good are they?” I ask.
“They’re strong enough to sheer through most troops even after their blades dull but they won’t last if the battle prolongs itself. They are too large to avoid attacks so they accumulate wounds and lose stamina. Those are the only ones on the Izla, we can’t replace their casualties. I wouldn’t put them in front of a cavalry charge if that’s what you’re thinking, they’ll be harassed until they fall.” She answers.
“No, I expect your scouts will be able to handle their cavalry by drowning them in numbers.” I need to find a way to break the soldiers forming the core of that army without letting them use the peasantry as fodder. “What’s are the numbers involved here?”
“Four thousand warriors, most with Fenyz, twelve thousand scouts, and four hundred harvesters.” Celyz relates. “The humans, as far as I can tell, have fifteen thousand peasants, two thousand soldiers, and a five hundred mounted Nobles.”
“Five hundred Nobles.” I repeat, surprised at the large number. I glance at the human army again. “That’s still under three thousand qualified combatants.”
“It is, in what way is that important?” She turns to me.
“You want to damage their army, correct?” I ask for confirmation, Celyz nods. “That’s the part of their forces we need to hit, not the peasants.”
“I agree. Do you have a plan?”
“Tonight, we attack and use Fenyz’ warriors as a spearhead to pierce past the peasantry’s ranks. Once they reach the core troops, before their cavalry can get on their mounts, we use the harvesters to break them.”
“I don’t think it’s possible to reach the center before they get on horseback.” Celyz shakes her head negatively. “Don’t let your anger at Nobility color your logic.”
“I…” I hesitate, bringing the serving spoon to my lips and taking a bite to give myself time to think. “You’re right, we don’t need to hit the Nobles.” I admit, reluctantly. “Those soldiers are the ones they’re counting on to hold Meria’s walls, once they bleed, their army will have to retreat.”
“Look over there.” Celyz points at a large hill a good distance away from the human army, east.
“What is it?” I frown, squinting my eyes.
“Don’t know but our scouts aren’t coming back from there.” She slashes the air with her tendril, it snaps sharply when she abruptly stops. “I suspect Templars.” Her resounding voice is tinted by irritation.
“Will their trick with pheromones still work?” I ask.
“Yes. But it won’t matter too much with me and Fenyz to keep an eye on things.”
“I don’t understand what they’re still doing here.” I mumble. “What’s the point? They don’t even have enough experienced soldiers to break past your army of scouts in open field.”
“You’ve said it, they lack experience. Perhaps they want to bloody their army and retreat. Besides, this is the first time both of our armies encounter each other in the field, retreating without a fight would be a hit to morale. It would be seen as a defeat in the eyes of every man and woman in that army.” Celyz ventures a guess.
“Or they have a plan.” I counter. “Did you hear anything about Lance’s call to arms towards the mainland Nobility?”
“I have, it would be too early for that to have any effect on this battle.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” I shake my head negatively. “I was told that barges were sent to the mainland for grain, but that’s suspicious in itself since we are still a few months away from winter, the issue of food shouldn’t be so urgent.”
“You think they’re going to use them to ferry soldiers over.” Celyz catches on immediately.
“They chose to sit their army in the middle of the plains instead of reinforcing this castle by the sea or picking a more defensible position.” I explain. “Something’s going on that we don’t know about.”
“Fenyz will be here by the end of the afternoon. We will organize and attack as soon as night falls, we’ll see if they have a plan.”
It takes me almost half an hour to finish the pot of food, I almost stopped once my stomach was full but my hunger remained. I didn’t think that the limb could affect me this way.
I suppose it isn’t surprising that the limb can push its host to feed more. It is unsettling but there is not much to do about it, I’m not going to give up the arm and starve to death over this.
The afternoon passes by. I remain sitting on the cart, atop the hill, resting next to Celyz and observing both armies in turn. I glance back at the castle once night starts falling.
There are Rykz warriors pouring out of the breach and northern gate. The column of supply carts filled with the granary’s grain is slowly progressing towards us, pulled along by workers.
I turn my glance west, to observe the sea on the horizon. No sign of any barges in the dimming light. Soon, I won’t even be able to see far enough to tell.
“How long until we’re ready?” I ask Celyz.
“Another couple of hours for Fenyz to get here, it’ll take half an hour to organize our troops into a formation.”
“She took her time.” I comment. “If there are barges full of soldiers on the water, waiting to use the dark to land…”
“Then there are. It is not a concern.” Celyz shrugs. “We have scouts on the shore, I’ll dispatch a thousand more to that flank if you are concerned.”
“Please do. I don’t know how quickly those can cross the sea and disembark troops, but…”
Celyz waves a tendril, a squad departs east towards a large cluster of scouts. The Rykz army is eerily silent, those without orders are patiently holding to their ranks, barely moving at all. A scout approaches us. I glance at it, puzzled.
“They’re moving.” Celyz speaks up.
“Who?” I ask, frowning and turning my gaze north. “Fuck.” I utter, finding the human army in the process of forming ranks.
The peasants are organizing in large regiments but the spaces between them are irregular, the only thing that changes is that instead of a large mob, there are now several smaller ones.
“Why would they attack now?” I furiously think through the possibilities until one of them surfaces. “Fenyz.”
“They were warned that our army is gathering, they do not want to fight our entire forces so they are taking the initiative.” Celyz agrees.
At least they’re carrying torches so I’ll be able to see what’s happening. I divert my sight towards the large hill that the Princess pointed me towards earlier. I don’t see anything but I keep my eyes fixed on it.
“If Lance sent her barges as soon as she came back to her castle, that was something like a week ago. Plenty of time for them to load and come back.” I tell Celyz.
“Where would they have found the soldiers?” She asks.
“Port-Odo. The Duke could have convinced them to lend their own garrison. After all, that city is your next target once the Izla falls.”
“You’ve been staring at that hill. You think there is an army behind it, not just a couple hundred of Templars.” Celyz inclines her head. “Port-Odo is a major harbor, but not a large city. Two thousand soldiers and mercenaries, at the most.”
“Redeploy your troops, leave only the minimum amount of troops on that western flank and cover the eastern one.” I tell her. “If they land from the sea, we crush them on the beaches. If they’re behind that hill and try to take advantage of the opening, your Rykz are reactive enough that we’ll be able to react and redeploy before it’s too late.”
“Why? We can cover both flanks.” Celyz asks.
“Because they won’t attack until they see a weakness to exploit. Better give it to them at the start of the battle, guide them where we want them instead of letting them decide what their best move is, where they can inflict the most damage to us.” I explain my thought process. “Just treat them as a distraction, our focus remains the same, crush the core of Meria’s troops.”
“You want to attack while we’re on the defensive!?” Celyz exclaims, chuckling.
“Why not? Tell Fenyz to hurry up and split her army in half, one to each of our flanks. That way we won’t have to worry too much about either and we can focus on the center where their core troops are sure to hit us.”
“One minute.” Celyz nods and waves four tendrils at once towards different squads of Rykz who depart in every direction at running pace. “Done. Will you take the field?”
“No. Not yet at least.” I shake my head, glancing at the large hill once more. “Did you say two hundred Templars earlier?” I ask.
“Approximately. Less since quite of few of them died during the first wave of our attack, but those were the least skillful since they were posted inside unimportant village temples.” Celyz pauses. “No offense.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I shrug. “How do you plan to deal with the Templars?”
“Like this.” She waves a tendril and the scouts around us start moving, they form circles around us on the hill, lines of Rykz deployed in layers separated by a few meters of empty space. “They’ll be slowed down to a crawl before they can make it uphill, not to mention the spiked trenches disseminated all around us.”
“We’ll see.” I glance at the defensive perimeter skeptically. “If you’re willing to, I’d like you to call the harvesters here.” I tell Celyz.
“Of course, what do you plan on doing?” She asks.
“Wait, see, counter.” I shrug. “I’ll be honest, I’m hoping that they have a viable plan to defeat us because, otherwise, I don’t see the point of this. I would rather not watch people die for no reason.”
“I understand.” Celyz nods, waving a tendril to send a scout towards the four hundred harvesters.
It only takes the harvesters only a few minutes to move and cross the army to organize themselves around us. The level of coordination shown by the Rykz as they flawlessly part and create pathways to let other units pass within their ranks is impressive.
I inspect one of the harvesters, its interlocked carapace is at least five centimeters thick, its chest moves as the large Rykz takes long, deep breaths.
I bring my attention back towards the hill that an army might be used to hide, ignoring the human army’s advance. The darkness is now too thick for me to observe the sea, but I should be able to distinguish a small army moving across the empty plain, even with this little light.
I catch a glimpse of metal, a ray of sun hit some part of someone’s sword and reflected it in our direction. I enhance my eyesight. It takes me a while, even with the construct, to distinguish the soldiers wearing black clothing making their way across from the large hill towards the Rykz’ western flank, the one we purposefully depleted of its troops.
“My trick worked, Celyz.” I tell her. “I think there are about a thousand men and women headed towards our left flank.”
“Do we need to reinforce it?” She asks.
“No, not yet.” I turn my gaze towards the center.
The Nobility is standing on a hill, there are hundreds of servants holding torches up for the five hundred Nobles. The soldiers, core of their army, are holding up the middle of the formation while mobs of peasants hold up the flanks.
They are holding tools ranging from scythes to pitchforks, planning to use them as weapons.
In front of them, a black tide of Rykz scouts, barely visible to me in the night.
Their breathing cry floats up the hill, to my ears, pushed along by the wind.